By Gary Schoeniger & Chris Thompson, president of Civic Collaboration Consultants, LLC
We all know that entrepreneurship is vital to creating prosperous communities and the need to encourage and support entrepreneurial activity at all levels of society has never been more important than it is today. After all, entrepreneurs have become the engines of economic growth, not only starting new businesses that create jobs and revitalize our communities but also transforming existing organizations, advancing our understanding of the world and improving the overall quality of our lives.
Yet we cannot rely solely on venture-backed high growth entrepreneurship or main street small business owners to revitalize our communities. We must encourage and support the development of entrepreneurial mindsets at all levels of society, in all sectors including public, private, academic, and nonprofit. In other words, we must work together to create entrepreneurial communities.
Community colleges are ideally poised to catalyze such change. Yet creating entrepreneurial communities cannot be accomplished by a single entity or organization, it requires a shared vision and coordinated action among many including public officials, business leaders, philanthropists, non-profit leaders, educators, and other community stakeholders.
Such cross-sector collaboration can be challenging and efforts to do so often devolve into “co-blab-oration” — endless meetings, a lot of talk and few results. Yet when properly organized and implemented, collaboration can become a powerful force for enduring, positive change. Engaging new partners to align interests and coordinate actions require a data-driven process designed to build trust. Facilitating such a process requires the capacity to foster shared learning, build consensus and communicate with diverse stakeholders. Most importantly, such efforts demand the exercise of collaborative leadership to build, support and sustain momentum while ensuring a commitment over the long haul.
Community colleges are well positioned to catalyze and support such cross-sector collaborations in part because they work with all segments of the community and regularly convene and engage with diverse stakeholders to help develop on-the-ground solutions to complex challenges ranging from workforce development to public health. And, as demonstrated by the growing membership of NACCE, there is increased awareness and commitment by community colleges to fostering vitality through entrepreneurship.
Catalyzing a collaboration designed to build an entrepreneurial community will require community colleges to engage new partners in a purposeful and intentional way. The list of potential partners is long and includes chambers of commerce and individual businesses, financial institutions, community-based social ventures, local governments, community, family and private foundations, and United Ways. Each of these potential partners has different perspectives, priorities, and motivations. The temptation to convene all of these players is great and community colleges certainly have the facilities to host such convenings. But experience teaches us that effective collaborations move at the speed of trust. And trust begins with one-to-one conversations rather than community-wide events.
Because of their strong connections across all sectors and their long-term commitment, community college leaders can initiate cross-sector collaboration by engaging new partners in one-to-one conversations to explore their willingness to build a more entrepreneurial community. These one-to-one conversations should be designed to help stakeholders explore compelling questions that prompt new ways of thinking, inspire creativity, and help frame further discussions.
What compelling questions should community college leaders ask to engage partners in building a more entrepreneurial community? We might begin by asking, what would our community look like if everyone was empowered by an entrepreneurial mindset? By asking such aspirational questions, community college leaders can engage new partners to create a shared vision for a community that is better prepared to adapt and thrive in today’s rapidly changing world.